Solution or sabotage? When students find case answers online

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In today’s world, a solution to almost any problem or dilemma, in fact an answer to practically any question, can be found quickly and easily online. So, what happens when a student injects such critical information into a case class, with the potential to hijack the teaching plan or pedagogical process? Can, or should, instructors stop this occurring? When it does, how can they ensure the discussion and learning are not sabotaged? In conversation with recent winners of The Case Centre’s Outstanding Case Teacher Award, we explore this issue, and identify strategies for handling it.

The problem

Anecdotal evidence from instructors suggests that students seeking, finding and bringing case ‘solutions’ into class, including accessing instructor materials online, occurs quite frequently. While some faculty do not regard this as a particular problem in practice, many others do.

“The issue of students pre-empting a case discussion and sharing with the class a case solution they have found online, is raised as a serious concern by at least one participant in every case teaching workshop I facilitate,” reports Urs Mueller. “It is a genuine worry for many case instructors, and can appear difficult to deal with, especially for less experienced faculty.”

Tree - half dead half alive

Schools also worry. Under constant pressure to avoid harm to their reputations, they are vigilant to be seen to uphold pedagogical and academic standards, including outlawing anything that could be considered to be plagiarism or cheating. It is common practice to warn students that both are unacceptable. Students are frequently asked to sign a ‘learning contract’ at the outset of their programme. Anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin is widely used by schools for assessing written assignments. What happens in a live class is more challenging to manage.

In late 2021, the executive board of the North American Case Research Association (NACRA) discussed the prevalence and problem of ‘contract cheating’: “As the premier academic community committed to excellence in case research, writing, and teaching, … NACRA is concerned about the increase in contract cheating, and the negative impact of these practices and services on academic integrity and student learning around the world.” The organisation cites data from institutions worldwide: “Contract cheating has continued to increase in usage and sophistication in the past decade, and has become even more widespread during the online and remote learning and assessment of 2020-2021.” NACRA highlights “… students purchasing bespoke or often-used essays and other assignments from ghost-writing services around the world, and then submitting these as their own work.” In particular: “Contract cheating services and sites provide case analyses to students as ‘homework help,’ often within a few hours or less, and sometimes with access to the official instructor’s manual.”

Impact on learning

It is easy to see how the websites offering essays, or ‘answers’ draw in their prospective clients. In often emotionally charged mission and community statements, they present themselves as existing to support students to learn and graduate better: “We are dedicated to helping readers flourish”; “We care deeply about our customers … we work hard to understand and meet their needs”; “We envision a world where every student graduates, confident and prepared.” But are they really helping them?

Quite apart from the fact that there is rarely just one answer to a case, there is a strong argument that it is not in a student’s best interests to be provided with solutions that they have not reached through their own thoughts and the class discussion. Cases are not about right and wrong answers. Learning with cases in particular should prepare participants for the real workplace precisely because they have learned to face confidently, and work through with others, problems and dilemmas with a rounded and practical approach - all in the safety of the class discussion.

Aerial view of a complicated road junction

Already in 2016, in her Harvard Business Publishing mini guide: Online Case Solutions, Susan Harmeling explained: “The case method is less about solutions than it is about analysis and critical thinking. The interactive nature of case study discussion involves real-time self-learning, the Socratic method of inquiry, and a constant give-and-take between all participants. Asking and answering questions to stimulate thought and illuminate ideas negates the concept of any one right solution.” She distinguished between finding a case solution, and finding the case outcome, which is less damaging to the class: “…it is easier to deal with students who have looked up the outcome or epilogue than when they have looked up entire case solutions online. … Because the case method entails reading a story, analyzing it, and then forming and stating your own argument and opinions, it is difficult to skip the details of the case itself and go straight to the answer.”

Mats Urde analyses his teaching strategy in terms of the two types of thinking proposed by psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow. Its main thesis exposes “a dichotomy between two modes of thought: ‘System 1’ is fast, instinctive and emotional; ‘System 2’ is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.” According to Urde: “What we are trying to do in case teaching is to get students to engage their System 2 mind: when you have to start thinking deeper and making judgements to come up with a decision. Auto-pilot reactions, or a quick fix of information, will not suffice for real learning.” 

So, by accessing no-thinking-required, bespoke, online answers, students are really denying themselves - and, especially if the intervention is too early, others in the class - valuable thinking and the full case learning opportunity. In the long run, such students may find themselves less prepared and feel less confident to deal with the real life challenges they will face at work.

Is it cheating?

While many instructors remember their own university days characterised by visits to libraries to search out information, younger generations have grown up with a smart phone in their hand, in what Susan Harmeling termed “the era of instant information.” She is not alone among faculty in identifying that allowing technology in the classroom can exacerbate the problem. However, banning it is not always feasible, especially when classes are held online or in hybrid mode.

There may also be inadvertent mixed or unclear messages about research around a case coming from the instructor. Pre-class preparation or group assignments may include direction to seek out certain information relevant to the case. So why stop before the outcome or solution? What are the boundaries? Students themselves often post case solutions online which others can find. Why not read what your friends have already learned?

Participants may not always consider that they are doing anything wrong by finding out what happened in a case. Some may know the outcome from general knowledge or their own work experience anyway. They may not appreciate how it could lessen their learning or preparedness for employment. Importantly, they may fail to grasp that their actions may impede the learning of others in the class. Suddenly there is also a moral dimension at play, which is the responsibility of the school and the instructor. All these considerations need explaining to the students. 

PAGE 2 

Induction

Preparing students for case learning and clarifying expectations of them is something routinely done by predominantly case-using schools, usually during induction. But most schools use a wide variety of teaching methods, and care needs to be taken that the case method is not neglected in this process. 

Wouter De Maeseneire reports: “We strongly believe that open communication about the learning methods we use, including the ‘dos and the don’ts’, is a critical element at the outset of a programme.” De Maeseneire elaborates: “We do explicitly warn students to not actively search for case, or even smaller exercise, solutions as there will be no learning. We indicate that this is viewed as cheating or even plagiarism and inform them that once someone does know the solution - even inadvertently - they should never distribute this further. We point out that they will find this knowledge hard to hide in the discussion because their interventions will inevitably reflect it, especially given that case questions are rather challenging.”

A lighthouse shining its light in the dark

Perhaps because of this clear guidance routinely offered to new students, De Maeseneire reports that this particular problem is the exception rather than the rule at the school. He points out that peer pressure and social control can also play a positive role in guiding the right behaviour, especially as cases are often tackled in group work. 

Case instructors always have the option to start their own individual courses by setting out the principles and mechanics of the class process, and their expectations of student participation. Clarifying, or reiterating, that it will not be about finding a single solution or ‘the correct answer’ will always help - and probably surprise - many students, especially those new to cases or discussion based learning; so much of high school examination relies on ‘right’ answers, after all. There are publications available to recommend to students and The Case Centre offers Learning with Cases: An Interactive Study Guide, that takes students through the process, providing practical tips, tricks and tools.

Impact on class

A strong source of worry for instructors is that an early contribution from a participant offering the case outcome or solution will ‘kill’ the session. For Wouter De Maeseneire: “The point of a case class is the discussion, the disagreement, the debate, the argumentation, weighing up the pros and cons, all carefully planned by the instructor to be based upon the students’ level of preparation, and course or topic knowledge, built up to that point. If the solution is simply presented ‘on a golden platter’, it most definitely does have the potential to totally ruin the class and the learning.”

Urs Mueller believes that many instructors live in fear of “losing control” of the class and the discussion and that is why the early reveal of a case solution creates so much anxiety. Always pragmatic, he suggests that case selection, particularly early in a course, is a starting point to try to avoid the scenario in the first place.  “If a teacher relies heavily in early sessions on cases which have a ‘rabbit-out-of-the-hat’ moment, then students may expect all cases will be like that. They quickly deduce that finding the answer or solution that the instructor already knows must be the most important objective,” he explains. Mueller advises to include cases at an early stage that do not have a seemingly unique solution or end outcome, or to use - or write - disguised cases set in a different industry. “Students can’t quickly find answers for such cases online anyway,” he points out.

It is sound advice to case authors to consider information relating to the case subject available in the public domain; if it is there, students will find it. Establishing the impact of this is one reason why testing cases in class is such an important part of preparing a final version for publication. Mats Urde adds: “The teaching note is a wonderfully useful and important document. I always encourage colleagues to produce a teaching note for every case they author. I would also suggest including tips and guidance of what to do in class if someone knows the case outcome or a solution, or mentions it too early. This could really assist other instructors to prepare.”

When it happens

The ideal scenario, if a student indicates they know ‘what happened’, is the instructor stopping them in their tracks. A non-confrontational approach could be to offer that student to share their findings later in the class, when invited. But, what if the intervention can’t be stopped?

Phone screen showing a hanging bridge in the forest

All case classes require meticulous planning to ensure learning objectives will be met. The case discussion is by definition unpredictable and planning factors this in. Consequently, it can be helpful to view a potential participant contribution of the case outcome or solution as just one additional input. An instructor can prepare for this particular eventuality with strategies to deflect, challenge the speaker, park the information with the class, reframe it, or indeed use it as a springboard for discussing alternative strategies or outcomes. Thinking-on-your-feet is a core skill of a great case instructor and this situation allows them to embrace and develop that ability.

“As a case teacher, you have to go with the flow and always be prepared with follow-up questions,” says Mats Urde. “If a student has ‘spilled the beans’ with the solution, you could ask the class to look further into the future: might the company need to change it, looking ahead, or, is there a better solution to be envisaged? The point is to keep the class thinking and an intervention that appears not to be ideal, can be viewed as an opportunity to deepen and broaden the discussion,” he suggests. 

Timing is important, as Susan Harmeling highlighted: “When a student shares the outcome toward the end of the case discussion, this scenario can actually be a gift and can be used as to segue to your own case wrap-up. If you had planned to provide students with the ‘moral of the story’ anyway and the student’s information is correct - or mostly correct - stick with the spirit of the case method and allow him or her to be the one who tells everyone what really happened.”

Urs Mueller reflects: “I urge instructors to look at this problem realistically.  Why, these days, would someone not use a search engine to find out more? It could indicate curiosity and interest rather than cheating, and that deserves acknowledgement.” He advises: “If you repeatedly run into this ‘problem’, develop confidence in your own ability to adapt your teaching plan and deal with it. Ask for input from experienced case teaching colleagues. Work with, rather than against what happens in class and turn the intervention into a meaningful element of the discussion.” Mueller reminds us that effectively managing the unexpected can transform a regular case class into a memorable one - not just for the students, but also for the instructor.

This article was published in Connect, October 2022.

Page 1

The problem

Anecdotal evidence from instructors suggests that students seeking, finding and bringing case ‘solutions’ into class, including accessing instructor materials online, occurs quite frequently. While some faculty do not regard this as a particular problem in practice, many others do.

“The issue of students pre-empting a case discussion and sharing with the class a case solution they have found online, is raised as a serious concern by at least one participant in every case teaching workshop I facilitate,” reports Urs Mueller. “It is a genuine worry for many case instructors, and can appear difficult to deal with, especially for less experienced faculty.”

Tree - half dead half alive

Schools also worry. Under constant pressure to avoid harm to their reputations, they are vigilant to be seen to uphold pedagogical and academic standards, including outlawing anything that could be considered to be plagiarism or cheating. It is common practice to warn students that both are unacceptable. Students are frequently asked to sign a ‘learning contract’ at the outset of their programme. Anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin is widely used by schools for assessing written assignments. What happens in a live class is more challenging to manage.

In late 2021, the executive board of the North American Case Research Association (NACRA) discussed the prevalence and problem of ‘contract cheating’: “As the premier academic community committed to excellence in case research, writing, and teaching, … NACRA is concerned about the increase in contract cheating, and the negative impact of these practices and services on academic integrity and student learning around the world.” The organisation cites data from institutions worldwide: “Contract cheating has continued to increase in usage and sophistication in the past decade, and has become even more widespread during the online and remote learning and assessment of 2020-2021.” NACRA highlights “… students purchasing bespoke or often-used essays and other assignments from ghost-writing services around the world, and then submitting these as their own work.” In particular: “Contract cheating services and sites provide case analyses to students as ‘homework help,’ often within a few hours or less, and sometimes with access to the official instructor’s manual.”

Impact on learning

It is easy to see how the websites offering essays, or ‘answers’ draw in their prospective clients. In often emotionally charged mission and community statements, they present themselves as existing to support students to learn and graduate better: “We are dedicated to helping readers flourish”; “We care deeply about our customers … we work hard to understand and meet their needs”; “We envision a world where every student graduates, confident and prepared.” But are they really helping them?

Quite apart from the fact that there is rarely just one answer to a case, there is a strong argument that it is not in a student’s best interests to be provided with solutions that they have not reached through their own thoughts and the class discussion. Cases are not about right and wrong answers. Learning with cases in particular should prepare participants for the real workplace precisely because they have learned to face confidently, and work through with others, problems and dilemmas with a rounded and practical approach - all in the safety of the class discussion.

Aerial view of a complicated road junction

Already in 2016, in her Harvard Business Publishing mini guide: Online Case Solutions, Susan Harmeling explained: “The case method is less about solutions than it is about analysis and critical thinking. The interactive nature of case study discussion involves real-time self-learning, the Socratic method of inquiry, and a constant give-and-take between all participants. Asking and answering questions to stimulate thought and illuminate ideas negates the concept of any one right solution.” She distinguished between finding a case solution, and finding the case outcome, which is less damaging to the class: “…it is easier to deal with students who have looked up the outcome or epilogue than when they have looked up entire case solutions online. … Because the case method entails reading a story, analyzing it, and then forming and stating your own argument and opinions, it is difficult to skip the details of the case itself and go straight to the answer.”

Mats Urde analyses his teaching strategy in terms of the two types of thinking proposed by psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow. Its main thesis exposes “a dichotomy between two modes of thought: ‘System 1’ is fast, instinctive and emotional; ‘System 2’ is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.” According to Urde: “What we are trying to do in case teaching is to get students to engage their System 2 mind: when you have to start thinking deeper and making judgements to come up with a decision. Auto-pilot reactions, or a quick fix of information, will not suffice for real learning.” 

So, by accessing no-thinking-required, bespoke, online answers, students are really denying themselves - and, especially if the intervention is too early, others in the class - valuable thinking and the full case learning opportunity. In the long run, such students may find themselves less prepared and feel less confident to deal with the real life challenges they will face at work.

Is it cheating?

While many instructors remember their own university days characterised by visits to libraries to search out information, younger generations have grown up with a smart phone in their hand, in what Susan Harmeling termed “the era of instant information.” She is not alone among faculty in identifying that allowing technology in the classroom can exacerbate the problem. However, banning it is not always feasible, especially when classes are held online or in hybrid mode.

There may also be inadvertent mixed or unclear messages about research around a case coming from the instructor. Pre-class preparation or group assignments may include direction to seek out certain information relevant to the case. So why stop before the outcome or solution? What are the boundaries? Students themselves often post case solutions online which others can find. Why not read what your friends have already learned?

Participants may not always consider that they are doing anything wrong by finding out what happened in a case. Some may know the outcome from general knowledge or their own work experience anyway. They may not appreciate how it could lessen their learning or preparedness for employment. Importantly, they may fail to grasp that their actions may impede the learning of others in the class. Suddenly there is also a moral dimension at play, which is the responsibility of the school and the instructor. All these considerations need explaining to the students. 

PAGE 2 

Page 2

Induction

Preparing students for case learning and clarifying expectations of them is something routinely done by predominantly case-using schools, usually during induction. But most schools use a wide variety of teaching methods, and care needs to be taken that the case method is not neglected in this process. 

Wouter De Maeseneire reports: “We strongly believe that open communication about the learning methods we use, including the ‘dos and the don’ts’, is a critical element at the outset of a programme.” De Maeseneire elaborates: “We do explicitly warn students to not actively search for case, or even smaller exercise, solutions as there will be no learning. We indicate that this is viewed as cheating or even plagiarism and inform them that once someone does know the solution - even inadvertently - they should never distribute this further. We point out that they will find this knowledge hard to hide in the discussion because their interventions will inevitably reflect it, especially given that case questions are rather challenging.”

A lighthouse shining its light in the dark

Perhaps because of this clear guidance routinely offered to new students, De Maeseneire reports that this particular problem is the exception rather than the rule at the school. He points out that peer pressure and social control can also play a positive role in guiding the right behaviour, especially as cases are often tackled in group work. 

Case instructors always have the option to start their own individual courses by setting out the principles and mechanics of the class process, and their expectations of student participation. Clarifying, or reiterating, that it will not be about finding a single solution or ‘the correct answer’ will always help - and probably surprise - many students, especially those new to cases or discussion based learning; so much of high school examination relies on ‘right’ answers, after all. There are publications available to recommend to students and The Case Centre offers Learning with Cases: An Interactive Study Guide, that takes students through the process, providing practical tips, tricks and tools.

Impact on class

A strong source of worry for instructors is that an early contribution from a participant offering the case outcome or solution will ‘kill’ the session. For Wouter De Maeseneire: “The point of a case class is the discussion, the disagreement, the debate, the argumentation, weighing up the pros and cons, all carefully planned by the instructor to be based upon the students’ level of preparation, and course or topic knowledge, built up to that point. If the solution is simply presented ‘on a golden platter’, it most definitely does have the potential to totally ruin the class and the learning.”

Urs Mueller believes that many instructors live in fear of “losing control” of the class and the discussion and that is why the early reveal of a case solution creates so much anxiety. Always pragmatic, he suggests that case selection, particularly early in a course, is a starting point to try to avoid the scenario in the first place.  “If a teacher relies heavily in early sessions on cases which have a ‘rabbit-out-of-the-hat’ moment, then students may expect all cases will be like that. They quickly deduce that finding the answer or solution that the instructor already knows must be the most important objective,” he explains. Mueller advises to include cases at an early stage that do not have a seemingly unique solution or end outcome, or to use - or write - disguised cases set in a different industry. “Students can’t quickly find answers for such cases online anyway,” he points out.

It is sound advice to case authors to consider information relating to the case subject available in the public domain; if it is there, students will find it. Establishing the impact of this is one reason why testing cases in class is such an important part of preparing a final version for publication. Mats Urde adds: “The teaching note is a wonderfully useful and important document. I always encourage colleagues to produce a teaching note for every case they author. I would also suggest including tips and guidance of what to do in class if someone knows the case outcome or a solution, or mentions it too early. This could really assist other instructors to prepare.”

When it happens

The ideal scenario, if a student indicates they know ‘what happened’, is the instructor stopping them in their tracks. A non-confrontational approach could be to offer that student to share their findings later in the class, when invited. But, what if the intervention can’t be stopped?

Phone screen showing a hanging bridge in the forest

All case classes require meticulous planning to ensure learning objectives will be met. The case discussion is by definition unpredictable and planning factors this in. Consequently, it can be helpful to view a potential participant contribution of the case outcome or solution as just one additional input. An instructor can prepare for this particular eventuality with strategies to deflect, challenge the speaker, park the information with the class, reframe it, or indeed use it as a springboard for discussing alternative strategies or outcomes. Thinking-on-your-feet is a core skill of a great case instructor and this situation allows them to embrace and develop that ability.

“As a case teacher, you have to go with the flow and always be prepared with follow-up questions,” says Mats Urde. “If a student has ‘spilled the beans’ with the solution, you could ask the class to look further into the future: might the company need to change it, looking ahead, or, is there a better solution to be envisaged? The point is to keep the class thinking and an intervention that appears not to be ideal, can be viewed as an opportunity to deepen and broaden the discussion,” he suggests. 

Timing is important, as Susan Harmeling highlighted: “When a student shares the outcome toward the end of the case discussion, this scenario can actually be a gift and can be used as to segue to your own case wrap-up. If you had planned to provide students with the ‘moral of the story’ anyway and the student’s information is correct - or mostly correct - stick with the spirit of the case method and allow him or her to be the one who tells everyone what really happened.”

Urs Mueller reflects: “I urge instructors to look at this problem realistically.  Why, these days, would someone not use a search engine to find out more? It could indicate curiosity and interest rather than cheating, and that deserves acknowledgement.” He advises: “If you repeatedly run into this ‘problem’, develop confidence in your own ability to adapt your teaching plan and deal with it. Ask for input from experienced case teaching colleagues. Work with, rather than against what happens in class and turn the intervention into a meaningful element of the discussion.” Mueller reminds us that effectively managing the unexpected can transform a regular case class into a memorable one - not just for the students, but also for the instructor.

This article was published in Connect, October 2022.

Contributing insights

Urs Mueller
Associate Professor of Practice
Wouter De Maeseneire
Associate Professor of Corporate Finance
Tips for instructors
  • Make sure students understand the purpose of a case and the discussion.
  • Consider case selection: use some anonymised or without an obvious solution.
  • Have short cases read in class itself rather than before.
  • Be flexible/be prepared for the unexpected in class.
  • Halt any unhelpful intervention, if you can.
  • If not, ask students what they think of the proposed solution.
  • Use any revelatory intervention as a fresh direction for the discussion.
  • Seek support from a mentor or experienced colleague.
  • Be confident!

Compilation © The Case Centre, 2022.

Tips for case authors
  • Consider class use of case as you write it.
  • Be mindful of relevant information in the public domain about the case subject.
  • Incorporate into the pedagogy the knowledge that some students will search out solutions.
  • Focus on key learning points and structure case accordingly.
  • Consider anonymising subject if public knowledge damages learning objectives.
  • Consider creating an alternative fictitious case with the same purpose.
  • Include instructor guidance in teaching note for when students reveal the solution during the discussion.

Compilation © The Case Centre, 2022.

Learning with Cases: An Interactive Study Guide

Learning with cases can be a challenging experience.

Our interactive study guide takes students through the process, providing practical tips, tricks and tools.

Picture representing 'Learning with Cases: An Interactive Study Guide'
Picture representing 'Learning with Cases: An Interactive Study Guide'
Learning with Cases: An Interactive Study Guide

Learning with cases can be a challenging experience.

Our interactive study guide takes students through the process, providing practical tips, tricks and tools.

Discover more